OF all our standard events probably the marathon is least under-stood. You can point to the reason without much difficulty ; its inclusion in modern sports came so much later than any other distances. As a matter of fact prior to the 1914-18 war twenty-six miles was actually considered suitable only for those who had been especially favoured by Nature with more than the usual toughness and stamina, a mistaken opinion due solely to lack of knowledge.
There’s another reason too, and an equally potent one, which will go far to explain our ignorance about it. Have you ever realised that its technique has been taught and explained by men who never at any time contemplated running such a distance themselves ? These are the only teachers we’ve had ; men entirely without experience of the game beyond having seen others engaged in it. Nearly every book on training that we’ve got today has been written by authors of this type. Mind you, I’m not trying to belittle their work or to blame them ; far from it. They gave us the best they knew and that’s all anyone can do. The only pity is that they weren’t in a position to know more. It just shows how dreadfully behind-hand we are with this form of athletics. The only possible explanation is that this department of running has blossomed out so recently that in spite of its popularity it hasn’t had time to produce the number of technical exponents common to shorter distances. In this respect, therefore, marathon men are at a disadvantage compared with all other runners.
Have you ever considered why distance running should have faded out so much more than sprinting ? There can be no doubt that a few thousand years ago all men, and to a slightly less degree all women too, were equally efficient at both, just as both sexes of the rest of the animal world still are. But as civilisation progressed and men harnessed animals, metals, and then science to aid them in their ever-widening activities, the need for personal exertion to cover long distances elapsed, and horses, trains or motors provided a quicker and more convenient method. Then, too, financial competition promoted a busier life, limiting yet further the time available for recreation.
In this way long-distance running as an everyday affair slowly but surely petered out, though sprinting was always kept going by its inclusion in various games. Yet when you come to think of it both forms of running are equally natural, and it’s only because we’ve allowed distance work to lapse that its technique is less understood.
There’s another point which will show how wide the gap has become between our knowledge of sprinting and that of marathon running. Among various records put up during the last fifty years Hutchins’ thirty seconds for 300 yards still stands, yet the
Olympic marathon figures of 1908 and 1912 wouldn’t rank today as decent second-class performances. We couldn’t have made all that progress without having learnt a lot ; such a marked advance proves that marathon running is still in its infancy whereas sprinting, being nearer the ” adult ” stage in development, hasn’t scope for improvement on such a scale. I don’t for one moment intend to suggest that earlier Olympic marathoners were intrinsically inferior to their modern rivals ; they failed to put up better times only because they hadn’t learnt how to set about the business. Had they known as much as we do they would have gone in for far more training, possibly of a less strenuous kind in some respects and would have specialised at the one event.
No doubt methods have improved quite a lot, but marathon technique is still such unexplored territory that the times put up today, very much better as they are, will yet permit of further and considerable reduction. Only when the race is run in something like two hours twenty minutes shall we be able to say that it’s science on a par with that of the shorter distances up to the mile. Yes, they will reach the 140-minute mark or very close to it when we get men to train consistently in the most up-to-date manner.
For a start you’ve got to remember that there’s more lost ground to be made up in the marathon field than there is in any other event and this of course will need a corresponding extension in training. This point has never been mentioned in the text-books because the writers had not recognised how backward we really were. Consequently we have been spoon-fed with altogether inadequate work with regard to the necessary training ; and not only that, but much of what has been advised is futile. If there’s one thing that is absolutely definite it is that walking doesn’t teach you to run. Marathon men must learn to run long distances and walking, so far as their training for running goes, is only a waste of time and does nothing to help with the specialised event. Yet we are still taught by non-marathon runners, and of course by those who haven’t as yet spotted the weak point, that long walks, excellent in themselves apart from running, should form a definite part of the training schedule. They make a strong point of it too !
The actual training from the stage of novice to first-class ability is almost sure to take eighteen months, and you’d have to be drastically severe with exercise and relaxation to manage it in so short a time. Three years would be more reasonable. To drop training at any time during that period whether for a holiday or anything else is to throw overboard part of your hard-earned ability ; the longer the holiday the more serious your relapse. Hence you must make up your mind to get busy and stay busy for two or three years on end. There won’t be so much difficulty about it once the habit of regular exercise has been formed ; it’s the earlier stages that have always proved more troublesome.
Hurrying won’t help you and there are no short cuts—don’t kid yourself that you can fool Nature. Nothing but honest work and
plenty of it will make you more thoroughly efficient at the game than your rivals. Ten or twelve miles twice a week, plus a somewhat longer jaunt on Saturdays, such as our books nowadays advise, is less than half the work you’ll have to get used to—less than half you CAN get quite used to. That may sound a tall order, but it’s quite time somebody put the facts down in black and white ; if they frighten you off, marathon honours are not for you. And that’s where the time factor comes in and explains why two or three years are necessary; you’ve much physical building to do and can’t afford to be slipshod about it.
You might think that if you indulged in twice as much exercise you’d go stale almost at once. So you would if you kept on with the usual speed-up taotics. But if you eliminated racing entirely for the time being you would discover that what you dropped in that sphere could be tacked on to distance, extending it to an almost unbelievable degree, and it’s distance you’re really training for, not speed. One hundred per cent, increase of exercise is no small item and you may be sure it’s going to make you tired. Even that needn’t worry you, for it’ll be little more than temporary discomfort ; a few months and you’ll have built up muscles and sinews to stand the racket without complaining, and the daily grind will have become mere normal routine.
The first thing to do, then, is to increase your outing gradually— and it should be at least five (better still, six) days a week—until you can average four hundred miles per month, by which time you will be able to realise that the few months’ training at present recommended is little more than a playful introduction to the real business. You can look on four hundred miles as the low limit ; there are plenty of men who have done more than twice as much —I’ve run twelve hundred miles in a month myself—but most of them had more time at their disposal and were not primarily interested in the standard marathon. I’m just telling you this to show you that there’s nothing in any way fearsome in such a figure once you’ve worked up to it, though it may sound formidable to a partly trained man. When you’re well on the way to it,, and note the astonishing improvement gained, you will be forced to admit that a few months’ training on standard lines will never get you anywhere ; all it can dc is to prepare you to battle your way towards much harder work.
The man who says he hasn’t time for such exercise is only telling you, though he might not admit it to himself, that he doesn’t intend to make time. Pat Dengis, the American champion, was averaging a higher monthly figure when he gathered in the All America title, yet he did not allow athletics to interfere with his daily work as a machine tool maker. Ballington, the South African, covered an even greater mileage because his methods and style were suited to distances of from fifty to one hundred miles : and he, also, trained out of business hours. It should be remembered that neither of these men were in any sense of the term ‘” born athletes ” as we understand it, and if they could manage
four hundred miles a month or more without detriment to their work in factory or office, any other ordinary man can learn to do likewise. Anyway, if you want to do better than tho next man, you’ve got to work harder.
Here’s another point it will pay you to note. Train on the same lines as your rivals and you’ll make about the same headway ; to attain a different result—that, of outclassing them—your preparation must be different. So there’s no need to shy at the programme I’ve outlined even though it is a radical alteration from the normal course ; the mere fact that it IS so perchance provides for better results. You can learn like Pat Dengis did when he gave these new methods a thorough trial, or fail to learn through lack of initiative : the choice is always yours.
The first men to employ improved methods are the ones who usually make the greatest splash. In recent times Nurmi of Finland was perhaps the most notable example. Ballington was another—the -entire sub-continent of South Africa subscribed lavishly to send him over to England to prove his world superiority. Both worked on the lines I’ve been recommending. Had Nurmi been allowed to run at the Olympic Games at Los Angeles in 1932 he would certainly have shown an astounding improvement on the marathon record as it now stands. Ballington did as much in the hundred miles, reducing it far below what had previously been considered the possible limit—more than two and a half hours less than the track record. Then his time for forty miles on hilly roads, surrounded with traffic and in bad weather, was more than twenty minutes below the amateur track world record, which was equivalent to beating that record holder by about three miles ; you can perhaps judge from that what his system was worth.
And Pat Dengis ? He was just beginning to get into his stride with exactly the same methods, having given them a trial—as he openly admitted—without having any real faith in them, but thinking they could at any rate do no harm. His first subsequent race was an outstanding success and a month or two later he had won the All America championship in better time than he had ever managed, beating the runner-up by half a mile. He then wrote to a friend saying he was convinced he was at last on the right track with training and that his former ideas were completely out-of-date. Unfortunately he lost his life shortly afterwards in an air crash.
Future marathon honours, then, are still waiting for men to give these methods an innings. After which of course the standard will be raised again, making it still more difficult to establish new records at the distance.
Let’s get now to some of the more intimate details of training ; perhaps if we tackle some of the major problems first the lesser ones won’t be so difficult. One thing you can bank on for a start is that until you’re really fit you’re not getting the pleasure and satisfaction from your training that you should ; you may be getting some of it, but most of us are greedy enough to want the lot.
If benefit is to be had, as it most certainly is—and of course pleasure follows proportionately—discriminate with your methods and you’ll meet it halfway and keep company thereafter.
Reasonable exercise, allowing for astonishingly wide differences in stages of training, makes and keeps a man fit ; it is only when he goes to extremes in anything that there is the possibility of a relapse. I have travelled for months at a time with men who kept in super-condition when doing upwards of forty miles a day on their own feet. Needless to say a tremendous amount of training had to be undertaken before they reached that stage, the bulk of it in many cases being overcome by many during the first fifteen hundred miles of the event they were engaged in. At the other end you find fellows who keep in moderate trim with no more than an average of a daily mile or so of walking plus perhaps a game at the week-end. Not that these latter were ever as fit as the others, but they reckoned they hadn’t either the time or desire to reach such a high level of physical well-being.
Anything between these two limits which happens to suit you for the moment will do to start off with ; as you progress you can add to your work without perceptibly adding to the exertion required to perform it ; as you grow fitter and apply your extended experience ycu are able to spread the same amount of energy over a wider field by economising with trifles here and there. There’s much more in this than would appear at first sight as you will soon find out if you try the experiment.
As a man gets to feel he is really improving he naturally wants to measure himself against his rivals. This means a race every now and again and the results, or so he thinks, tell him where he stands. They would, if the races were only now and again. But if there’s one thing we have yet to learn almost from the very beginning—for even the bulk of our present experts and coaches haven’t yet recognised it—it is that races should NOT be undertaken one after the other as is the present practice ; we must know more about the science of athletics.
Now look at this picture and draw your own conclusions. Suppose you foresee an emergency ahead when you will need, say, £100. Straight away you start saving up and putting aside all you can till you have the required £100 in the bank. If you’re sensible you’ll make sure there’s something over to allow for possible unforeseen contingencies. While you were about this you would no doubt consult your bank book to see how you were getting along from time to time, but the last thing you would ever dream of would be to take out all your savings and spend the bulk of them merely to make sure that they were really available. So when the time arrived you would have your nest-egg ready, plus a trifle over, and wouldn’t need to worry over anything.
Now apply that to training for a definite race which you have set your heart on winning, or perhaps at the first try getting placed. You undertake certain work in order to build up your reserves of energy, reserves that you know will be essential if you are to meet
your commitments at that particular event. As you progress your general sense of well-being tells you just what stage you have got to ; you consult your training achievements just as you might your bank book in the other case. So long as you go on building up you are sure of yourself and have nothing in particular to worry about ; in fact so little that, should an unforeseen expenditure of a reasonable amount have to be met, as in the case of a race which you suddenly decided to contest, you know you can meet it without drawing too heavily on the balance in hand. Commonsense tells you that you MUST not overdraw or you’ll have much of your work to do all over again. All your interim races, therefore, must be in the nature of moderate trials, not excessive ones ; all you need to know is that your general condition is steadily improving. That’s how it should be. Yet what is the general practice ? Fellows enter for practically every single race they can manage to attend and, on many occasions, run themselves almost to a standstill every time they compete. It’s nothing less than sheer thoughtlessness, and it’s high time we realised that there is far too much racing nowadays compared to the amount of preparation fellows have undergone.
By all means enter for a race every now and again, but beyond making a good shot at it leave time trials and everything of that sort very much alone ; they will only disturb your present balance and, if frequently indulged in, will lead either to constant troubles or such a disgust of the whole business as to cause permanent retirement before you’ve ever had a decent shot at your objective. If animals don’t go in for any particular training, yet have greater speed and endurance, how do they achieve their result ? By doing a steady amount of more or less gentle work every day and only on comparatively rare occasions letting out for all they are worth. I am convinced that any man who wants to become an outstanding champion should arrange his programme along these lines ; I have seen it applied with quite astonishing success by several champions in long-distance running during recent years. Will you wait till it becomes common knowledge or get going while the going is good ? To my mind a marathon man should not race seriously over his distance more often than once in six weeks— once in two months is probably better.
But the amount of work to be done between races will have to be considerable because the mileage of the race itself is considerable. If you’re going to contest a 26-mile event you must at least be used to a hundred miles a week—be able in fact to carry on like this without discomfort for a dozen weeks on end ; only then will you be able to get through such a race without a suspicion of distress. This gives you an idea as to how much is required in the way of training before you can hope to become really first-class at the game ; it will need, as I said before, not only months but actually years before you can get so used to a fifteen or eighteen miles daily spin that you can look at it just as a routine outing. You can get to that stage if you want to ; many have already done it.
But 90 per cent, of your practice during those two or three years of preparation should be of the moderate type ; just saunter along serenely at somewhere about nine to ten miles per hour when doing a 10-miler or 8-9 miles per hour when out for fifteen or twenty. Carry on like this and you will build up a constitution that will stand almost anything in the way of reasonable racing you care to put across it.
Men no longer run subconsciously like animals ; they have been working their brains for too long to be able to adopt such instinctive action without, a lot of practice. But you can get to that stage for training purposes if you keep it up long enough, just as you have already attained it for walking ; you don’t as a rule consider the action while you are out for a walk, your mind being busy with everything else.
Rhythm in your stride means everything, but it’s got to be applied throughout and not only with regard to the timing and length of your step. Running along the level is one thing and going uphill another. When you start climbing a hill the first thing to make sure of is that your ” wind ” doesn’t suffer too greatly, for that would mean upsetting the rhythm inordinately in that department ; so you will have to adjust your action to meet the altered circumstances. Keep on moving with exactly the same number of strides to the minute as you employed on the level, but shorten them in accordance with the gradient ; if the hill is very steep the reduction will have to be considerable. Your wind will tell you precisely what length is best if you keep an eye on it ; never under any circumstances permit yourself to be absolutely blown by the climb ; cut down your stride to any extent to avoid this, for it means that your heart and circulation are having to work furiously overtime to meet the excess you are putting across them, and overtime of this sort is energy misspent. Only at the end of a race can you afford to take any chances in this way.
Do NOT purposely lean forward (as so many tell you to) when going uphill ; it would be interfering with your natural balance and therefore adding to your work. All you have to think about is that your body generally is as near rest and unconcern as you can make it, just as it was while you were trotting along on the level.
When it comes to a downhill stretch you have another set of problems to attend to. Your stride, if you don’t take any particular notice of it, will naturally lengthen a bit. This is exactly as it should be ; it is a mistake to butt in and definitely give an order to that effect. Keep going at the same number of paces to the minute as before—anything between 175-190 that you are used to—and if your wind has suffered more than you think was perhaps good for it, take things easy enough to make sure it recovers, after which you can again adjust the pace to conform with your breathing.
You can gather from this that it is quite a mistake to think you
can make up time going down hill. As a matter of fact if you have carried on at your most suitable pace throughout you cannot make up time anywhere except perhaps at the very end. At that point it will depend entirely on what reserves you have built up ; if you are better off in this respect than others you can proceed to run ” all out ” for the last half-mile or so. But even then don’t lose your head ; you must still bear in mind that you can last longer with a comparatively short stride than with a long one, though you’ll have to quicken the tempo to add to the pace.
Keep your wits about you every time you decide to overtake another man. If he likes to waste his energy that’s his concern, not yours, and he only will have to pay for it. So if he hangs on to you or won’t let you pass, don’t immediately force the pace in an endeavour to gain the position ; just carry on at your customary speed plus perhaps the merest trifle of increase. If you’re the better-trained man the other fellow will be obliged to drop back before long and it’ll be the last you see of him. A sudden sprint to pass him is nothing less than chucking away a lot of useful energy—energy you may need very badly before you reach the tape. It MIGHT frighten the other into thinking you were altogether too good for him, but what’s the use of winning races by a trick of that sort ? It’s YOUR real condition you want ,to prove to yourself and to others, not that condition plus tricks.
As soon as you’ve got your ” second wind,” probably after the first mile or so, use it as your guide : nothing else will serve you as well. If you lose the race after having genuinely done your best it must be because the other man had put more time and attention into his preparation or that his methods were better ; carry on a stage further with your own and you will be able to reverse the position next time, for it is only a matter of sufficient work of the right sort.
Nothing but your wind can tell you whether your pace is correct for conditions at the time, for your breathing is entirely dependent on the amount of energy you are bringing into use. If the day is hot you will be obliged (subconsciously) to sidetrack a certain amount of energy to your refrigerating system; that is, you will perspire freely in order to adjust your temperature. If some of your energy is being diverted that way there will be less left for running, with the result that you will either have to go slower or peter out before the tape is reached. Most of us blame the weather when this sort of thing occurs, though we really ought to blame ourselves for not adjusting our output to suit prevailing conditions.
Heat in itself is no bar to distance running, though, as I have just shown, it certainly affects the pace. I have run with dozens of others through part of Death Valley in California, one of the world’s super-hot spots ; yet every fellow covered his forty odd miles without any particular trouble because the lesson had already been well rubbed in that they had to adapt speed to temporary conditions.
Unusually cold weather also has an adverse effect, for it is apt to hamper circulation and stiffen joints and muscles. A little extra care at the start will soon cure this, though the wearing of even a trifle too much in the way of clothing may tend to restrict action. In any case, extremes in the way of weather are bound to make a noticeable difference, though, as it is the same for all, those who have formed the habit of adjusting their tactics to suit will always come off best.
Perhaps one of the chief points is to regulate your training so as to be sure of always being on the safe side ; the least trifle of overdose, if persisted in, will surely lead to trouble of one sort or another, and this will cause inconvenience as well as loss of time. The first necessity is to train as often as possible, six days out of seven if you can arrange for it. Having seen to that, the question of amount can be settled without much difficulty, and as you progress this can be gradually increased. You can judge the amount necessary by results : a slight thirst is nothing out of the way, but a really fearsome one, lasting for hours afterwards, is a definite sign that either the pace or the distance has been too much, and curiously enough it is almost always the pace that is to blame. An occasional symptom of this sort may not do any harm to speak of, but for all that it should be avoided as far as possible as it means that your resources are being exploited towards straining point. If ever you get beyond such a stage without apparently doing any actual damage you will note that, not only are you unbearably thirsty but your appetite has entirely disappeared even for many hours after the event. There’s no need to rub the lesson in ; if you are actually in first-class fettle it may be excusable to exert yourself to such an extent for a really important race, but unless you are in outstandingly good condition such an experience is apt to be distinctly dangerous. All of which emphasises that you wear a head for use.
As likely as not you will think that the work I’ve advised is not only much more than you have any intention of doing, but actually far more than is strictly necessary ; and you don’t see why you should be called upon to do an ounce more than you need. Run through it all again in your mind and you cannot but come to the conclusion that every bit of it IS required. The amount needn’t frighten you at all; if you really intend to become a champion, you’ll have to go through every bit of whether it scares you or not. But prolonged training makes all the difference in the world, and after a year or so at it you will be just as astonished at your ability to dispose of a dozen miles before breakfast every day (or in the evening if that is your training time) as everybody else is to hear about it ; it only seems wonderful because so few have tried. Other men have done as much and even a great deal more ; what they did you know very well you can also do if you’re allowed time to prepare.
Why should you carry on to such an extent as fifteen to eighteen miles a day ? Well, the longer distances, such as the marathon,
have not been nearly so fiercely competed as the 440 yards or the mile, and consequently there is still a wide margin to be cut from the present record times. Even today many of these races are won in around 2h. 40m., though the man who can do no better than that can hardly be considered first-class.
If there is one thing all the way through that frightens practically every prospective marathon merchant it’s the distance. Very good; then commonsense would insist that distance must be practised to such an extent that a 26-miler no longer holds any terror. The thing is simple enough ; you will have to drop the bulk of your present recreations and spend the time thus gained at training ; anything from two to three hours a day will have to be set aside for the game six days out of seven, though of course an occasional day off won’t do any harm. Some fellows do all their training at night, others only in the early morning. Personally I prefer the morning because traffic at that time is much lighter, though of course the temperature in winter is apt to be more trying. But the time doesn’t really matter much; your only concern is to fit it in.
If you apply the programme I have suggested there can be no doubt about your ultimate success for it allows for all contingencies in weather or anything else. To be practically sure of making record time when expected is much more satisfying to the runner —even if it does take more preparation—than the present method which trains a man till he’s so fit that, if he happens to strike luck he will just manage it, but only then. Please yourself which you tackle ; if you want only the best you must be prepared to work for it—it’s there for the taking.